Rape and rape myth in Jewish tradition

Rabbi’s new book explores biblical attitudes toward women


Rabbi Gavi S. Ruit, a valued member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, teaches adult education classes here in southern New England.

Her forthcoming book, “The Story of Dinah: Rape and Rape Myth in Jewish Tradition,” to be published later this month by Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, is certain to ruffle more than a few feathers – for, as Ruit states in her introductory chapter, her objective is “to understand not only the beliefs and attitudes that underlie rape culture, but also to what extent Judaism has been complicit in fostering such beliefs, and, more generally, to gain insight as to where and how women have fit in Jewish tradition across time.”

At the core of Ruit’s book lies the story of Dinah as told in Genesis, chapter 34.  Ruit translates the Hebrew of the opening four verses as follows: “Then Dinah, daughter of Leah who was born to Jacob, went out to see among the daughters of the land. And Shechem – son of Hamor the Hivite, ruler of the land – saw her, and took her, and laid her, and violated her. And his soul clung to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and he loved the maiden and he spoke tenderly to the girl. And so Shechem said to Hamor his father, ‘take for me that child as wife!’ ”

Hamor visits Jacob to begin to negotiate a wedding, but soon two of Jacob’s sons, Simon and Levi, take over. They state that the wedding can only go forward if Shechem and all the other men in his town undergo circumcision.

That demand is met. 

When the men are weak and in pain as they recover from their circumcisions, Simon and Levi attack them with their swords, slaying every single one of them. They justify their violence with the words, “Should our sister be made like a prostitute?”

Ruit’s central argument is that “the Dinah story can serve as a kind of ‘Biblical Rorschach Test,’ in that it serves to reflect the commentator’s own attitudes, concerns, or anxieties, including those regarding women … the primary focus of ‘The Story of Dinah’ is to ascertain the attitudes and anxieties that later commentators project upon the text regarding the sexual violation of women and of women more generally.”

Dinah’s story leads to a wide range of interpretation because of the many ambiguities in the text of Genesis 34. To begin with, while we do learn something about how the men in the story feel – Shechem, Hamor, Jacob, Simon, Levi – we know nothing about Dinah’s feelings; she doesn’t speak a single word. All we can say about Dinah is that “she went out to see among the daughters of the land.”

While many label the story of Dinah “the rape of Dinah,” it is possible to argue that Dinah came to love Shechem, the man whose soul “clung” to her, the man who “spoke tenderly” to her. Indeed, Anita Diamant, in her 1997 novel “The Red Tent,” treats Genesis 34 not as a tale of rape but rather as a story of mutual, passionate love.

“The Story of Dinah” is a challenging and often provocative book. And no chapter is more challenging and more provocative than Chapter Four, “Rabbinic Period: Introduction of Rape Myth.” Here, Ruit argues and documents that, in marked contrast to the Intertestamental epoch that preceded it and the Middle Ages that followed, the Rabbinic period (approximately 100-600 C.E.) was a particularly misogynistic time in Jewish history. 

Bolstering her position by citing several passages of rabbinical midrash about Dinah’s story in Genesis 34, taken primarily from collections known as “Genesis Rabbah” and “Tanhuma,” Ruit makes the audacious claim that it was the ancient rabbis who introduced reflection of rape myths into Jewish tradition:

“Rape myth ideology clearly enters Jewish tradition during this period.  In addition to several comments that are dismissive of women, or debase them generally, the midrashim reflect three distinct types of rape myth. They include suggestions that: Dinah deserved to be violated, that she wanted her encounter with Shechem, and that her encounter with Shechem was nothing more than normative sex.”

Why did the ancient rabbis hold such misogynistic views? Why did they introduce “negative portrayals of women as inherently immoral”? 

In her concluding summary chapter, Ruit, though admittedly tentatively, suggests two possible answers. In the first place, the rabbis are “particularly concerned with issues of control in relationships with gentiles. Rabbi Huna’s anxiety (see Genesis Rabbah 80.11) that women cannot tear themselves away after sleeping with gentiles reflects this concern over locus of control.” 

Second, the rabbis are “particularly concerned with the potentially negative consequences of women asserting too much personal or economic power.”

Ruit’s condemnation of the ancient rabbis’ misogyny is profoundly disturbing to the large number of contemporary Jews who uncritically venerate these men who have given us our Talmud, our midrash and so much of the ritual structure of Judaism that we practice to this very day. 

Nevertheless, Ruit’s scholarship is formidable and her arguments are difficult to refute. As a result of her groundbreaking work, we Jews – of every denomination and non-denomination – will have a better understanding of where we have come from, and therefore a better understanding of who we are today.

Rabbi Ruit will launch her book at Temple Beth- El in Providence, on Sept. 12 at 7 p.m., at which time you will be able to explore these significant issues in conversation with the author.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.